(and I’m not referring to The Big Lebowski)
It is said that the most dangerous place in Washington DC is between a politician and a microphone. In the case of Montana’s former Congressman and now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, I suspect it’s between him and a camera. But when he’s on a horse, that’s a mistake. Zinke rides like the guy who comes to a guest ranch once a year to pretend he’s a cowboy. Likewise, he might also be pretending to be a “Teddy Roosevelt-style” conservationist.
Zinke decided to make his presence known in Washington by arriving at his new job at the Department of the Interior on horseback, complete with cowboy hat, accompanied by members of the National Park Police. I was initially amused; I’m all for horses getting good publicity. I’m also a fan of National Parks. But the side of me that is a lifelong horsewoman and a Montanan—that part cringed—for both Montana and the horse.
Teddy Roosevelt was the original “trust buster” who dismantled monopolies, a man who believed that our public lands should be managed for sustainability, not ravaged for short term profit. So far, Zinke’s record suggests that his rhetoric of admiring TR doesn’t match the reality of what Roosevelt actually stood for.
To be fair, I think it’s kind of cool that a Montanan finally holds a Cabinet post (Montana senator Thomas J. Walsh was asked to be Attorney General under FDR in 1933, but died under mysterious conditions before he could take the oath of office). I also must acknowledge that for a Trump appointee, so far Zinke is less embroiled in controversy than most.
But in spite of claiming his “first priority” was to “prioritize the estimated 12.5 billion dollars in backlog of maintenance and repair in our National Parks,” the very first thing he did was repeal Interior Department regulations banning lead in birdshot and fishing tackle, thus contributing to further pollution of our waterways. Even though the hunting and fishing industry has largely come around to non-toxic alternatives (if grudgingly), Zinke’s real priority was not National Parks. Instead, he stepped backwards 30 years to appease the reactionaries.1
But back to horses. Self-aggrandizement and posturing has been Zinke’s political style, and his riding reflects his character: Image over substance.
Here, he rode a horse as a publicity stunt, but Zinke isn’t much of a rider. Being a Montanan doesn’t always mean you are born on horseback, and Zinke is a self-admitted son of a plumber. I don’t expect championship equitation from a casual outdoorsman, but Zinke looks like the guy who hires an outfitter once a year to take him into the mountains. More to the point, the guy who is packed onto the biggest, most unflappable horse in the string is the dude who doesn’t know which end to face, won’t take advice, and needs a horse who is wiser than the passenger. Does this sound like Zinke? I stoutly maintain that how someone interacts with a horse reflects their character. So let’s analyze the photos. First off, sure enough, Zinke’s on the biggest horse in the string. Tonto2 is a 17-hand Irish Sport Horse. Not to put too fine a point on it, these are generally a draft horse/warmblood cross, and this gelding looks it. He’s big, he’s strong, and I’ll bet “phlegmatic” could be his middle name. Kudos to the Park Police for keeping Mr. Secretary safe.
Next, Zinke is sitting lopsided. (Leaning to his right, appropriately enough.) His saddle is so crooked that his stirrups look a good six inches different in length. Careless, and not good for Tonto.
Posing for photos with his head cocked and a slightly off-kilter stance is a Zinke trademark, (see adjacent photo) but crooked riders are hard on a horse’s back. I question if he even notices his mount.3 Oh wait, Zinke sees a camera.
As we continue our examination of Secreatary Zinke’s riding, note that Tonto is glancing around more than any other horse in the group. Zinke is clearly oblivious to what the animal is doing. Perhaps because. . . cameras?
Now, let’s look at Zinke from another angle:
Here he might be trying to channel the Marlboro Man. He’s even got on his official “Helmville Rodeo” jacket. Zinke’s been on a horse a few times, judging by how he rests his free hand on his leg and his relaxed seat. I’ve seen riders with worse leg position. But he’s still riding like a dude: his pants are riding up, his heels aren’t down, his toes are barely in the stirrups, and he is riding one-handed, Western-style—in an English saddle. Not only that, but he’s also using the wrong hand. Riders carry their reins in their non-dominant hand when riding one-handed. Zinke is right-handed, so he should hold his reins in his left. Even cowboys usually ride with two hands when they have a snaffle bit on the horse, as here.4
But what’s even worse about his hands, he’s hanging onto the horse’s mouth with his hand pulled off to the right, tightening Tonto’s left rein and turning the horse’s head. Zinke’s obliviousness to the horse again shows itself. He doesn’t just look like a beginner, he’s a passenger who is getting in the way of his own horse. Tonto-the-horse is a saint.
In the next photo, it gets worse, especially when contrasted with the rider next to him:
Once again, he’s holding on tight to Tonto’s mouth, but now we see that his reining hand is braced on the saddle; he’s hanging on by the reins AND wishing he could pull leather. Sorry Ryan, it’s an English saddle, there’s no saddle horn to grab! And he’s slouching—even dudes know the Marlboro Man sits “tall in the saddle”:
OK. So a lot of people aren’t regular riders, and I can hear folks saying that I’m being too persnickety about poor Ryan’s style. But his penchant for image over substance extends beyond horsemanship. Let’s look at Secretary Zinke enjoying another outdoor activity: Fly fishing. If any picture is worth 1000 words, this one begins by screaming PHOTO OP!
Really Ryan? You actually fly fish in a brand spanking new cowboy hat? When one gust of wind will blow it into the river? And there’s not a speck of dirt on it? And a perfect crease? AND—how ’bout those brand-new waders? Duuuuude! Let me say no more: Here is a photograph of a real fly fisherman.
Sorry Mr. Secretary, but the cowboy schtick just isn’t you. As we say out west, it’s a case of “all hat, no cattle.” Stick with the Navy SEAL thing; you wore that uniform.
While I hope Ryan Zinke is a better cabinet official than most other Trump appointees, I fear that his track record of form over substance will be a disaster for our environment. And you know, Tonto may yet have his revenge: as more than one wag has quipped, there is a working theory that “Khemosabe” actually means “idiot.”
Copyright 2017 Brenda Wahler
Please read disclaimer
- For more on Zinke’s record, Tuesday’s Horse has a good overview.
- Yes, according to press reports, the horse really was named “Tonto”. The racism towards Indian* people inherent in naming a horse “Tonto” appears to have been overlooked by the national press, and perhaps even by the National Park Service (one hopes they meant to reference the National Monument, which predates the TV series, but still, the name is problematic). The issue is complicated to explain in a short blog post, so I won’t, but a discussion can be found here.
*Under United States Law, “Indian” has a specific legal meaning, as in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, hence my choice of “Indian” in this context.
- True, some of the Park service riders also need to fix their stirrups and can be faulted for their equitation, but they are at least trying to sit straight and keep their horses standing square. Because we mount horses from the left, over time, the left stirrup leather of a saddle will stretch to be longer than the right. Many people don’t realize this is happening. On an English saddle, this can be minimized by swapping the leathers from right to left when the saddle is cleaned.
- A finished western horse has learned to neck rein and can be ridden one-handed with a curb bit. Classical dressage riders also occasionally use a rein hold where both curb reins are held in the left hand. A snaffle bit is generally used two-handed; this allows for more lateral control of the gentler mouthpiece. In this case, they probably put a snaffle on Tonto so that Zinke didn’t have to deal with four reins (pelham bits appear to be standard for the Park Police) and so that his obviously bad hands didn’t trouble the horse as much. Also notice that Zinke always had riders on either side of him.